At the end of 1968, John Brack resigned as Head of the National Gallery School in Melbourne, where he had studied some 20 years earlier, to devote himself to full-time painting.
With paintings such as Collins Street, 5 p.m.1955, he had established a reputation as an urban realist and social commentator, one who employed irony to make penetrating comments concerning the human condition. Now, however, he was seeking an artistic form which would remain faithful to the local reality, to the here and now of immediate experience, but one which could also be interpreted on a more universal level. Throughout the 1960s, he experimented with different subject matter which he generally developed as series of paintings and drawings; these included the schoolyard series, the wedding series and shop front series. In each instance, he added further levels of meaning to the imagery.
Another series which preoccupied Brack in the 1960s was that of professional ballroom dancing. The theme initially appealed to him for its absurdity: people who converted a natural activity, such as dance, into a demanding and challenging ritual. It was also a continuation of the theme of precariousness of being, where couples are thrown together within a competitive environment, where all is set against them: the floors are tilted, slippery and polished, the glare of the spotlights is merciless, the crowd and the judges appear hostile.
It is possible to interpret the major painting from this series, Latin American Grand Final, on a number of levels. On one level it is an illustration of an actual event — the World Ballroom Dancing Championships, which were held at Melbourne’s Festival Hall in 1967. Brack attended the championships and acquired a considerable number of photographs for use as source material. The painting is also about masks and facades — the costumes, the hair and the smiles are all deliberate disguises used by the competing couples, who have to face the crowd and the judge. The couples, thrown together, whether in a dance, marriage or relationship, cling to one another in gestures of simultaneous attraction and rejection, yet persist with the ritual and the farce. Unlike some of his earlier paintings where there is a clear judgemental message, here there is no judgement; Brack does not stand in front of his subject to denounce the foibles of human behaviour but instead, in the top left-hand corner, more vulnerable than the rest, dancing alone without a partner, is a self-portrait of the artist. So if this dance is a farce, a dance of life where we perform our hour upon the stage and are heard no more, assuming deliberate disguises, but alone, even when in company, then the artist is part of this ritual. He does not judge and condemn, but suffers with the rest of us.
The painting, with its blaze of neon pinks, stinging reds and sharp thrusts of black, is full of sexual symbolism set within a very formalised choreographed ritual. The generous billowing and bulbous ballroom dresses are frequently shown encroached upon by a dancer’s leg, either bold and erect or curved and limp. There is a constant play between what is revealed and what is possibly implied in the imagery.
Brack employed photographs as source material for this painting; they were not copied, but used as a departure point to allow the development of a formal design. The photograph is a touchstone on the here and now, the visible, tangible Australian reality. The painting itself is a much broader comment on society, social behaviour and the tragedy of the human condition. If the Collins Street, 5 p.m. painting provided a very localised, close-up view of humanity, composed of observed, sketched individuals and in its title already signifying a specific time and space, then with Latin American Grand Final the imagery is a little withdrawn; the dancers, while based on specific photographic models, are now more symbolic, more allegoric — they are commenting about all of us, the dance of life and the ritual of being. The problem which increasingly started to preoccupy the artist was not only how to make a statement about the specific, but also how to make it in such a way as to have a universal meaning. As Brack commented later:
I considered I had made at last a significant advance on the superficiality of the Collins Street picture, while at the same time, not making the picture look over complicated. You see, the problem was to make it operate on different levels of meaning, but to make it look perhaps deceptively simple.1
Sasha Grishin 2002
1 Sasha Grishin The Art of John Brack Melbourne: Oxford University Press vol.1 1990 p.115.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002